Warren Kimbro, who spent decades giving back to the community he so famously stirred after killing a fellow Black Panther and prompting the headline-grabbing New Haven Black Panther trials, died late Tuesday at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He was 74 and lived in Hamden.
The cause was a heart attack, a hospital spokesman said.
Described by many as the epitome of redemption, Kimbro admitted to the 1969 killing of Alex Rackley, a fellow Black Panther who was suspected of being a police informant. The ensuing trial of Black Panther Party national leader Bobby Seale — whom prosecutors said had ordered Rackley’s slaying — created a national sensation, spurring unparalleled protests in New Haven and casting the Panthers into the center of a societal dialogue on whether any black revolutionary might secure a fair trial in 1970s America.
But Kimbro was pardoned after serving four and a half years in prison, and he devoted his life to helping others find second chances — something he himself came to find through decades of work in the Elm City. After receiving a master’s degree from Harvard, Kimbro returned to New Haven and worked as a community activist, founding Project MORE (Model Offenders Reintegration Experience), an organization that worked to assist ex-offenders re-enter their community.
The events of Kimbro’s life inspired Paul Bass ’82 and Yale School of Management professor Douglas Rae to co-author a book that examined the events surrounding the Black Panther trials and the life of Kimbro, titled “Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer,” published in 2006. Speaking at a reading of the book in October 2006 at Yale, Kimbro brought the audience to tears as he addressed his path toward redemption.
“We were not nice people back then,” he said. “But if you do something wrong, if you want to move past it, you have to admit it and apologize. To me, that’s the end of the story.”
Those who knew Kimbro described him as a funny, caring and loving man who dedicated his life to helping those in need, particularly the ex-convict population in New Haven.
“I think he was a wonderful human being who showed us that within each of us there are redemptive qualities — he was living proof that we all can be redeemed,” said State Sen. Toni Harp, a longtime friend of Kimbro.
Warren Aloysious Kimbro was born on April 29, 1934, in New Haven and grew up on Spruce Street, a section of town erased long ago by urban renewal. Indeed, Kimbro was a “son of New Haven in every sense of the word,” as his longtime friend Bass, the editor of the New Haven Independent, put it.
“He grew up here and took part in every important civic enterprise of the second half of the 20th century,” Bass said. “He becomes an incessant crusader to giving people second chances. His influence extends from the highest levels of power to the lives of the powerless.”
Less than a year after joining the Black Panthers, a radical African-American organization established to promote black power during the 1960s and ’70s, Kimbro and fellow Panthers George W. Sams and Lonnie McLucas tortured suspected FBI informant Alex Rackley, also a Panther, for two days in a house on Orchard Street in New Haven. Kimbro admitted to being the one to ultimately kill him.
“He spent six months as a Black Panther, ends up in a swamp with a gun in his hand and he was ordered to ice a ‘wrongly suspected informant,’ ” Bass said.
In addition to Kimbro, Seale and other members of the Black Panthers were charged for the kidnap and torture preceding Rackley’s death. It was a period of tremendous unrest in the United States as they prepared to go on trial, said Sam Chauncey ’57, the top aide to then-University President Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41.
Tens of thousands of protestors gathered on the New Haven Green to protest Seale’s trial. But as the nation looked on, Seale’s trial ended in a hung jury and all charges were dismissed.
“I think Warren Kimbro was an outstanding brother, a person who in the history of that trial got caught up in a bad situation,” Seale told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Bass said the trial and Kimbro’s later transformation highlighted the major issues of the time. He said he considers Kimbro a hero, though the ex-Panther struggled to come to grips with the events of the Black Panther trials throughout his life.
“Warren wanted to come to grips with what really happened. He wanted people to understand that he wasn’t a hero for committing a murder,” Bass said, noting that his friend prayed every day and was never fully able to forgive himself.
Four and a half years after his conviction, Kimbro emerged from prison determined to help others in his situation transition more easily back into society. After graduating from Harvard and returning to New Haven, Kimbro took the helm of a budding movement called Community Corrections, a program meant to break the cycle of recidivism by helping people turn their lives around outside of jail, Bass said.
“The state department that once jailed Kimbro then goes on to give him millions of dollars to turn people’s lives around,” he said.
Rae, for his part, came to know Kimbro during the 1980s through Kimbro’s late wife, Beverly, who worked at Yale’s Political Science Department as the assistant director of administration for MacMillan Center. Rae first met Warren following the death of Kimbro’s stepson, Arthur Moore, and the two soon became tennis partners and friendly sports rivals. Rae said Kimbro was a huge fan of the Yale football team until the day he died.
Rae said he learned of Kimbro’s death late Tuesday and was devastated. “Warren Kimbro lived, all things considered, a fabulous life,” Rae said.
Rae said he tried to incline Kimbro to rationalize the murder while he and Bass wrote their 2006 book, but the ex-Panther never changed his statement that “No, I was wrong.”
“That was the one blemish on an otherwise spectacular and praiseworthy life, a life of spirited generosity and service to others,” Rae said. “If you had told me when I was a college student that one of my most important lifetime friendships would be with a convicted murderer, I would have laughed at you,” he said.
Reflecting back on the life of his friend, Rae said the biggest impact Kimbro had was through his work as chief executive officer of Project MORE and his influence on public policy on a state level. Kimbro spearheaded countless programs aimed at early childhood education and at urban adolescents, Rae said.
Kimbro worked closely with decades of local politicians, including Mayor John DeStefano Jr., through his lobbying efforts in City Hall. Kimbro’s involvement in the “Ban the Box” initiative — an effort to remove questions regarding felony status from municipal job applications — helped make possible the unanimous vote of approval on the proposal at Tuesday night’s Human Services Committee, DeStefano suggested.
“I think that ‘Ban the Box’ was a small piece of a larger fabric,” the mayor said, “a reflection of the fact that he saw value in people that have made mistakes.”
Aldermanic President Carl Goldfield, who came to know Kimbro through his work with Project MORE, said although he grew up during the time of the Black Panther trials, he had not initially associated Kimbro with the Panthers.
“In my days, Panthers were tough intimidating guys, but that wasn’t him,” Goldfield said. “When I knew him, he was a gentle and easygoing guy.”
Kimbro’s funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church at 782 Orchard St. He is predeceased by his wife, Beverly, and stepson and is survived by a son, Germano, a daughter, Veronica, and a brother, Joseph Kimbro, and five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
In a somber voice Wednesday night, Germano Kimbro said he would describe his father as someone who loved everybody.
“When I cry, I’m crying for everybody else,” Germano Kimbro said by telephone. “I lost my father to the community a long time ago because he’s a father to everybody he met.”
Germano said he remembered an incident three or four years ago when his father heard there was a local athlete who had come upon troubled times. Kimbro drove with his son through the streets of New Haven to find the boy, intending to impress upon him the idea of joining a football team.
“He went right out into the community and tried to turn the kids in another direction,” Germano Kimbro said. “He’s touched so many lives.”
Martine Powers, Victor Zapana and Zeke Miller contributed reporting.